Non-Surgical Solutions to Spinal Disc Problems
One moment you are just fine and the next moment you bend over to pick something up and feel a “kink” in your back and a searing pain down your leg, or you wake up with a sharp pain down the side of your neck and your fingers are numb and tingling. Could this be a spinal disc problem? More than likely it is. Spinal disc problems are very common in the lumbar spine occur less frequently in the cervical spine. Many people with spinal disc problems experience no symptoms initially. In a study of 1,230 people who were asymptomatic (meaning they experienced no symptoms) and given MRI’s, a whopping 87.6% were found to have some form of “disc bulging”, and 1 in 20 had a disc bulge or herniation so severe that it was compressing the spinal cord. The highest prevalence of disc problems is in typically people aged 30-50, with a male to female ratio of 2:1.
Worldwide, back pain is the single leading cause of disability, preventing many people from engaging in work as well as other everyday activities. Disc bulges and herniations are one of the most common causes of back pain. The most common level we see disc problems in the neck is C6/7 followed by C5/6. The most common level we see disc problems in the lower back in L5/S1 followed by L4/5.
So, what is a disc bulge or herniation, and what causes it? In this article, we will break down what disc problems are, how do they happen, what secondary issues do they cause and why do you get them? Finally, we’ll talk about what to do if you have one or someone you know has a spinal disc problem.
Spinal Disc Problems
So, what are spinal discs and how do they bulge or herniate? Spinal discs are the shock absorbers of the spine. They are located between the vertebrae and you normally have 23 of them. Your spinal discs have 2 parts: an outer ring of cartilage that is usually pretty tough, called the annulus fibrosis, and an inner “jelly-like” substance called the nucleus pulposis that acts like a ball-bearing or a spacer to keep the vertebra apart, cushioning and protecting the delicate nerves exiting the spine. Your discs are “loaded”, meaning they bear the weight of your body and gravity. However, if there is more overall load on the disc or more load on one disc than another, or a sudden extreme force put into a disc, the outer cartilage can tear or break down allowing the inner “jelly-like” substance to ooze or “herniate” out of the disc. Think of stepping on a jelly doughnut. If you step on a jelly doughnut, the jelly has to go somewhere. If it moves to the outer part or the doughnut because you didn’t step on it that hard, that’s a “disc bulge”. However, if you really step hard on the doughnut, the jelly will squirt out of the doughnut altogether. That’s a herniated disc.
Common symptoms occurring as a result of a herniated disc include
- Arm or leg pain.If your herniated disk is in your lower back, you’ll typically feel the most intense pain in your buttocks, thigh and calf. It may also involve part of the foot. If your herniated disk is in your neck, the pain will typically be most intense in the shoulder and arm. This pain may shoot into your arm or leg when you cough, sneeze or move your spine into certain positions.
- Numbness or tingling.People who have a herniated disk often experience numbness or tingling in the body part served by the affected nerves.
- Muscles served by the affected nerves tend to weaken. This may cause you to stumble or impair your ability to lift or hold items.
To understand the etiology (cause) of disc problems and why we develop bulging or herniated discs, you have to understand a little about the anatomy of discs. Discs are one of the few structures in your body that don’t have a direct blood supply. The discs are fed oxygen and nutrients through motion in the spine and that motion diffuses or pushes into the disc all of the oxygen and nutrients that the disc needs to be healthy. However, what if you sit most of the day on your spine without moving it? What if you are carrying 50 extra pounds on your spine, loading the discs more than they can handle over time? The disc will break down, specifically the outer ring of cartilage gets weak. Think of a new piece of leather vs. an old, dehydrated piece of leather. The old piece of leather is easy to tear, but the new, hydrated piece of leather is very strong. Same with your discs, if they get old, dehydrated and compressed, they are easy to tear and what results will be a bulge or a herniation. When your discs bulge or herniate, there is something in the way, NERVES. There are 31 pairs of spinal nerves and those nerves go everywhere in the body, to muscles, organs, sensory areas (pain, temperature, etc.). When a nerve gets pinched by a disc bulge or herniation, that nerve can’t send signals properly and the result is that it starts to cause problems. The reason that people who have a herniated L5 disc get sciatica is because the sciatic nerve is being pinched by the disc and the sciatic nerve goes down the back of the leg. The reason that people with a C5 disc problem get numbness and tingling into the arm and a weak bicep muscle is because that’s where the C5 nerve goes. Get it? The location of the disc problem determines where the nerve will be compressed and what symptoms will occur.
So now that we know a little about what disc problems are, what can and should we do about them? First of all, recognize that your discs are made of collagen. So we need keep our collagen strong. Incorporating collagen protein into your diet keeps your discs, tendons, skin, ligaments and cartilage healthy and strong. One of the greatest ways to do this is by consuming “bone broth”. Bone broth is easy to make at home. In fact, recipes can be found all over the internet. It can be purchased at most grocery stores or purchased online as bone broth protein in a powdered form. One of my favorites is Dr. Josh Axe’s bone broth protein (www.draxe.com). Either way, getting good sources of collagen is important for your discs. Another way to keep your collagen healthy and strong is by avoiding smoking. Smoking dehydrates your body and your discs need to be hydrated to be healthy. If you already have a herniated or bulging disc, consider including some important supplements:
- Omega-3-Fatty Acids: specifically, EPA/DHA, 2,000 mg a day
- Glucosamine/Chondroitin supplement
- SPM’s by Metagenics, Specific Resolving Mediators, excellent at healing inflammation
- Curcumin/Turmeric, also good at helping with inflammation
Another thing that you can do to keep your discs healthy and strong is to stop sitting so much. The average person is sitting a whopping 13 hours per day! Sitting “loads” your lower back and neck, meaning the discs are under more pressure when you sit. Seventy percent of the work force sits for a living, but just because you are working doesn’t mean you have to be sitting. I am a big fan of standing desks and some of my favorite and most affordable standing desks are made by VARIDESK.
Again, the human body is designed to move! However, with most of society becoming more and more sedentary, the body develops musculoskeletal dysfunctions and compensations. When those are present, pain and injury set in or are lurking right around the corner. I am a big fan of the Egoscue Method, a postural therapy, for people with herniated discs. This method, developed and founded by Pete Egoscue in the 1970’s, is based on the understanding that both chronic and acute pain are due to misalignment in the body as it loses its designed posture. The Egoscue Method restores the body back to its designed posture, alleviating pain and returning you back to an active, pain-free lifestyle. Here is a great link to learn and see these Egoscue Exercises. It is great to use a trainer to take you through these exercises so that you do them consistently and do them properly. So many people that I see do home exercise or stretches don’t do them properly with the right form and so they are not receiving the intended benefits.
Another thing that really helps spinal disc problems is Chiropractic care. As a matter of fact, a study published in Spine showed that adjustments that were done 5 days per week by experienced Chiropractors showed an improvement in the study subjects both in the numbers of days without pain, and the number that were pain free after treatment. Chiropractic works because it gets motion back into the spine and corrects the mis-alignments that are often causing a rotation of the vertebra and a “torqueing” of the disc. Think of what happens when your “wring” out a towel? You put a lot of pressure on it. Same thing when your vertebra rotate out of position and the disc is stuck in the middle, it is getting “wrung out.” Gentle adjustments can really help to correct misalignment (subluxation) and take the pressure off the discs and nerves in your spine.
Lastly in our office, we use something called “decompression”. This is a special table that you lay on and are strapped at the feet and hold onto a bar with your hands. The table gently flexes in the middle and your discs are “open up” and motioned. We use a vibration tool while the table is in motion to stimulate blood flow to the spine while the discs are being decompressed. We have found this to be very effective for patients with disc bulges and herniations to expedite the healing process.
There is hope for patients with spinal disc problems. A healthy diet with appropriate supplements, targeted exercise including postural therapy, decompression, and Chiropractic care can improve the quality of life for a person with spinal disc problems. Addictive narcotics and surgery should be a last resort. I understand this problem all too well. In 2015, I experienced a massive disc herniation after years of wrestling, football, adjusting patients and weight lifting. The disc herniation was so bad that it was compressing my spinal cord and causing pain and numbness down my arm and atrophy to my triceps muscle. Did I have surgery? Nope, I healed it using Chiropractic care, traction, anti-inflammatory supplements and stretching. It was the ultimate, “Doctor, heal thyself”.